The Unexpected Career Arc of Michael Crichton, Hollywood Director

Touchstone Pictures

Over the years, people have made a great deal of money off the technological and futuristic fears of Michael Crichton. In 1994 alone, Crichton is credited with having a number one movie (Jurassic Park), a number one television show (ER), and a number one book (“Disclosure”). If we were to ever develop the novelist version of an EGOT, odds are that Crichton and Shakespeare would be among its first recipients.

And yet, when we think of Michael Crichton, we tend to think only of the novelist. Early in the 1970s, Crichton leveraged his literary success to launch a sixteen-year career as a Hollywood director. In a 1973 interview with Vogue Magazine, Crichton credits Easy Rider as being the film that allowed him to make the leap from novelist to writer-director. “I was lucky because at the point I decided I wanted to direct films, Easy Rider had convinced studio executives to look for new talent, and it seemed as if anybody who could speak in declarative sentences – and a lot of people who couldn’t – were going to get to make films.”

At a time in Hollywood when the director was God, Crichton approached films like the best-selling novelist he was, delivering a string of futuristic thrillers that, if not a little overlong, hold up surprisingly well a few decades later. With Crichton set to receive two posthumous credits this summer – one for Jurassic Park and another on the in-development Westworld television series – now is the perfect time to take another look at Michael Crichton, Hollywood auteur.

Westworld

Without Westworld, there would be no amusement parks full of dinosaurs for us to enjoy. Crichton’s film about a futuristic resort where rich people can play to play cowboys and gladiators with robots – with the guests supposedly untouchable and the robots subject to punches and gunfire – hits on the same themes of evolution and technological overdependence that made Jurassic Park such a phenomenon. A series of computer errors pass from machine to machine, and before long, the businessmen and women find themselves dodging real swords and bullets.

The power of Crichton as a filmmaker was his ability to take the familiar and give it a gentle nudge into science fiction. What makes the futurism of Westworld so enduring is how rarely it actually looks like science fiction. Crichton mimics the aesthetics of fifties television westerns, choosing to play off our preconceptions of what the two genres should look and sound like. Shoot a gun at your friend and nothing happens? Why, that’s due to the electronic sensors in the barrel that recognize a human target! To quote Thank You for Smoking, thank God they invented the… you know, whatever device.

There are also plenty of comparisons to be made between Westworld and James Cameron’s The Terminator, with each film offering an extended chase sequence between the machine and its human target. In a 1985 interview with Film Comment, James Cameron compared the two films, referring to the lack of a mechanical endoskeleton in the former as “not visually satisfying.” Whatever improvements Cameron made to the model, the process is still mostly the same: an android programmed to kill a single target doggedly pursuing him through various hostile environments. Cameron borrows both the dispassionate pacing of Yul Brynner’s gunslinger and the frequent first-person perspective showing his victim through a heads-up display. While the film spends too much time on the build and too little on the chase – the robots don’t become murderous until an hour into the film – Westworld helped pave the way for all those sequels this summer you’re tired of reading about.

Coma

Who better to adapt a best-selling novel written by a medical doctor than a former medical doctor, best-selling novelist, screenwriter-director? During interviews for Coma, Crichton offered his opinion that Robin Cook’s novel was better suited to film; he viewed the novel as a thriller, one that could benefit from the temporal control that only a film director could offer. One could choose to view this as a nasty dig at a competing talent – if Coma was meant to be a film, not a novel, then Crichton alone possessed the technical skills necessary to unlock the story’s full potential. What better way to show your dominance over a competitor than to option his book, rewrite it, and then direct it yourself?

That petty – and unsubstantiated – possibility aside, Crichton did seem to know what he was talking about. Coma is a fun slow burn, with Crichton leaning on his lifelong admiration for Alfred Hitchcock to build a frightening story of medicine gone wrong. The audience follows Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) in her search for the cause behind an unexpected spike in comas following routine surgery. We quickly come to share in her paranoia, with Wheeler unable to trust her boyfriend (played by an impossibly young Michael Douglas) or the chief anesthesiologist (played by a believably middle-aged Rip Torn). Crichton also throws a little bit of institutionalized chauvinism into the mix; instead of relying on miscommunications and visual trickery to keep Wheeler’s claims unbelievable to her coworkers, Coma just suggest that they’re all kind of dicks.

While Coma may not be the most adventurous of Crichton’s fiction, it does present him at perhaps his most visually ambitious. In one key sequence in the film, Wheeler visits a resting center for coma patients, only to find dozens of them hung by wires in a single room with a computer adjusting their nutrition. In another, Wheeler avoids her pursuer by burying him beneath a pile of frozen cadavers. Crichton never lost his medical pragmatism as a director; while he will never make a list of Hollywood’s most graphic filmmakers, his treatment of dead bodies in film as little more than props makes his limited violence surprisingly affecting.

Looker

In Looker, Albert Finney plays a plastic surgeon who is swept up murder and conspiracy when several of his patients wind up dead. The one link between these patients is the precision of their measurements; each woman came to Finney’s Dr. Roberts with surgical needs measuring to the millimeter. Before long, Roberts is caught up in a conspiracy that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the very charitable millionaire played by James Coburn.

What makes Looker so fascinating is how close Crichton came to making one of the seminal films of his generation. The measurements are needed so the women can provide the perfect digital body scan; the idea that computers can create computer generated imagery – capable of replacing people entirely, with models selling the rights to their likeness – is an idea years ahead of its time. Even the film’s climax, which blends a shootout on the company’s physical sets with the CGI actors and actresses that populate the commercial, hints at a form of virtual reality that predates the original Tron by a full year.

But while Looker wows with its prescient glimpse of virtual reality in film, it fails to elevate the material above the same corporate conspiracy tropes as its seventies predecessors. The secret goal of Reston Industries is to populate its media with pulse-based subliminal messages, influencing elections and commerce across the world. Once more, the fear that people had was not machines replacing humanity, but people using machines to make other people docile.

Runaway

Graduating from a coma patient in Coma to the leading man in Runaway, Tom Selleck plays Jack Ramsay, a police detective who investigates “runaway” service robots. Despite a solid four film run from Westworld to Looker, Runaway is little more than a cash grab, capitalizing on the popularity of its cast from their other films (Cynthia Rhodes) or, uh, day jobs (Gene Simmons). Still, there is a little bit of the old Crichton magic in place. Crichton still makes the futuristic look commonplace – or perhaps the commonplace look futuristic – with bored police officers cycling through the different domestic robots while on call. The world in Runaway is so used to robots that their police unit is treated with about as much respect as traffic cops or ballpark security.

For his penultimate film credit as a director – his final film, Physical Evidence, would be the only time he directed another writer’s screenplay – Crichton couldn’t resist a nod to Hitchcock, giving Ramsay a bad case of vertigo and a climactic showdown atop a skyscraper. While the film may be a result of Crichton’s research into computer programming for a nonfiction book released the previous year, the execution is pure eighties cheese, with robotic heat-seeking bullets and robotic nannies making up a great deal of the subplot. Crichton was asked at the time how far into the future Runaway takes place and he guessed about a year, proving that even the best doctor/writer/directors among us aren’t immune to a science fiction flight of fancy.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.